Front Row Seats: Armchairs of the Strange and Famous



2016-09-01 12:09:32

From US Presidents to depraved aristocrats, space captains and human oddities - each of these unique chairs offers a front-row seat to a fascinating tale...


The Elephant Man's chair

This humble, slightly worn armchair was a place of rest for one of the most fascinating and tragic figures of the Victorian era – Joseph Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man.

Born in 1862, Merrick developed severe deformities as a child and by the age of 21 was working as a live exhibit in a travelling freak show. He spent time on display in a penny gaff shop on Whitechapel Road, opposite the London Hospital, where he was eventually befriended by Doctor Frederick Treves.

The pair formed a close bond, and Merrick was allowed to leave the show and live in an apartment in the hospital's basement. It was here that he educated himself, made detailed models, and received visits from members of London's high society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

One of his friends was the hospital employee Edward Charles Taylor, who had the armchair custom-made for Merrick at a permanent 45 degree recline which allowed him to rest his head properly.

Merrick spent a lot of time in the chair, listening to Taylor play the violin, and is believed to have sometimes slept in it as well, as the weight of his skull made it impossible for him to sleep lying down in a normal bed.

When Merrick died in 1890, at the age of just 28, he was found lying on his bed, having dislocated his neck and asphyxiated during the night – killed by his desire to sleep for just one night like a 'normal man'.

Taylor inherited the chair, and it passed down through his family for generations before being exhibited in the Medical Museum of the Royal London Hospital. It can now be found on the auction block, as part of RR Auction's Remarkable Rarities sale, where it's expected to sell for $15,000 - $20,000 on September 26.

Marquis de Sade's writing chair

Decadent, depraved and slightly soiled - and that was just his choice in soft furnishings.

The Marquis de Sade remains one of the most notorious figures in French history – an aristocratic writer, revolutionary, philosopher and libertine whose name is forever associated with sadism, cruelty and sexual deviance.

But despite spending around 32 years of his life behind bars, imprisoned for indecency and his blasphemous works, the Marquis liked to bring a few home comforts with him wherever he was sent.

These included his Louis XIII writing chair, covered with a tapestry depicting the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, in which a virtuous young wife is sexually harassed by the elders of her community.

It was in this very chair that de Sade wrote many of his most famous works, including his masterpiece Justine – a vivid account of the life of a young prostitute that enraged Napoleon so much that, in 1803, he ordered the writer to be imprisoned, first in the Sainte-Pélagie Prison, then the harsh fortress of Bicêtre.

Following de Sade's death in 1814 at the Charenton lunatic asylum, where he spent the last 11 years of his life, his son ordered all his unpublished manuscripts and belongings to be burned. The Marquis had brought shame on his family, and his name was scratched from the family tree.

But two centuries later, his descendants were shocked to discover this chair, along with close to 100 surviving works, in a trunk hidden behind a bookcase in the family's chateau at Conde-en-Brie.

Having once again survived censorship, this treasure trove of material was then offered at auction in Paris in June 2016 – where the Marquis de Sade's writing chair was acquired by a new owner for €32,500 ($36,220).

The Brady Chair

There are few objects which provide a direct link between the most important figures in US history. The Brady Chair is one of them.

For almost 100 years, the carved oak chair sat in a New York photography studio established by the "father of photojournalism" Mathew Brady. It was here that no less than five US Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S Grant, had their portraits taken – all sat in the same chair.

The chair had originally been made in 1857, as one of 262 commissioned for the US. House of Representatives, and is believed to have been given to Brady by Lincoln himself in 1864. Lincoln sat in the chair that very year for a picture with his son Tad, which would become one of the most iconic political portraits ever captured.

In addition to American presidents, the chair also played host to countless senators and civil servants, famous figures including Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain, notable Native American chiefs, and Civil War soldiers such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee.

Having remained in the possession of just two families for over 150 years, the chair was offered for sale at Bonhams in October 2015.

"There is perhaps no other single object that connects with so many important people, all prominent figures in 19th-century American history," said Bonhams specialist Madelia Ring, as the chair soared to a final price of $449,000.

JK Rowling's Harry Potter chair

It was in this very chair that the magical characters from the record-breaking Harry Potter book series came to life for the first time.

Although she's now one of the biggest selling writers in history, with book sales of more than 400 million and a personal fortune of £600 million, author JK Rowling began her literary career in truly humble surroundings.

As a single mother living on state benefits, Rowling wrote the original drafts of both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, on a manual typewriter whilst sat on an old dining room chair which came with her rented Edinburgh flat.

In 2011 Rowling personally decorated the chair, and donated it to a charity auction where it raised $21,000 for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). It was accompanied by a letter which read:

"Dear new-owner-of-my-chair / I was given four mismatched dining room chairs in 1995 and this was the comfiest one, which is why it / ended up stationed permanently in front of my typewriter, supporting me while I typed out 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' and 'Harry / Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'. / My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn't. / J. K. Rowling."

Having been sold again eight years later for $29,000, it appeared at auction for a third time in April 2016, during a Heritage Auctions sale of rare books in New York. Described as "arguably the most important piece of Harry Potter memorabilia that exists", it was snapped up by an anonymous collector for a magical $397,000.

JFK's Oval Office rocking chair

It's important for a Commander-in-Chief to have somewhere comfy to sit, but for John F Kennedy that proved a tricky task.

Kennedy suffered with chronic lower back problems, that had initially prevented him from serving in the Army, but a combination of exercise and some friends in high places meant he was able to join the United States Naval Reserve in 1941.

In August 1943 his boat, PT-109, was cut in half by a Japanese Naval Destroyer whilst on patrol near the Solomon Islands. Kennedy famously rescued a member of his crew and led the survivors to a small island, where they hid until being rescued several days later. Kennedy's efforts earned him a Purple Heart Medal, but also caused a back injury which would plague him for the rest of his life.

In 1955 Kennedy was advised by physician Janet Travell to use a rocking chair, which would relieve tension in his lower back, and he decided on a model by the P & P Chair Company. He soon installed them in all the family's homes around the country, and when he was elected President in 1961, he added the same chairs to the White House, Washington hotel suites he regularly frequented and even Air Force One.

Following the passing of his former wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994, many of JFK's personal belongings were offered for sale during a landmark estate auction at Sotheby's in New York.

The 1996 sale achieved an incredible total of over $35 million, with all lots soaring above their estimates. One of the top-selling items was Kennedy's Oval Office rocking chair, which was offered with an estimate of around $5,000 – and eventually sold for $453,500.

Captain Kirk's Star Trek chair

It has been described as "arguably the most recognizable chair in the world" and "one of the most important discoveries in the history of television memorabilia".

It was also the chair in which William Shatner sat at increasingly strange angles, as he led his crew on their five year mission across the final frontier.

The iconic bridge set of the Starship Enterprise, including the Captain's chair, first appeared in the show's 1964 pilot episode, The Cage, which featured Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike.

NBC executives saw potential, but weren't sure and ordered another pilot. This time producers spiced up the action and changed the cast, with the only surviving crew members being creator Gene Rodenberry's wife and a young Vulcan named Spock. In came the new Captain Kirk, played by the inimitable William Shatner, and the rest is history.

For three seasons Kirk and his crew boldly went where no one had been before, encountering alien races, battling monsters on mountaintops, travelling through time, and seducing women from distant galaxies.

The captain's chair was the central point of the set, and appeared in all 81 episodes, before production finished in January 1969 and the show was officially cancelled the following month.

As the Enterprise set was being dismantled, one lucky fan got a call from a friend at the studio, telling him to head over and take anything he wanted. The first thing he grabbed was Captain Kirk's chair, rescuing it from the scrapheap, and ensuring its survival as the most treasured piece of Star Trek memorabilia in the world.

To this day Captain Kirk's chair remains the most famous chair in TV history, and it holds the record price for Star Trek OS memorabilia – having fetched an out-of-this-world $304,750 at auction in 2002.

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